Improve your teaching evaluations

Get better scores without lowering your standards.
By Dawn Wotapka

Students are accustomed to being evaluated at the end of each semester. But professors, too, receive critiques and criticisms for their performance in the form of teaching evaluations. Evaluations can be a source of valuable feedback that lets you know what worked during the semester and what could use tweaking, but they can also be a cause for anxiety, given that they affect promotion and hiring decisions.

Studies have shown that evaluations reflect students’ biases, and faculty voice concerns that they reward easy graders and penalize professors who teach rigorous material. Also, some argue, evaluations may not accurately reflect reality: Students who didn’t work hard may ding a professor for a low grade.

Despite the controversy, “student evaluations of teaching remain important in the faculty evaluation process,” said Stephen R. Moehrle, Ph.D., department chair and professor of accounting at the University of Missouri–St. Louis’s College of Business Administration. While imperfect, they are a keymeasure of students’ perceptions of quality.”

The evaluations don’t solely determine a faculty member’s fate, but they do play an important role in how departments evaluate their overall performance. “Any trends or patterns in student comments provide insight on areas of teaching performance, where the faculty member is excelling and on areas that may require adjustments or improvement,” said Kristen Broady, Ph.D., dean of the College of Business at Dillard University in New Orleans.

For that reason, faculty will likely be subjected to this nail-biting process for years to come. But there are ways you can improve your teaching evaluations — without easing up on grading or lowering your standards. Accounting and finance faculty recommend the following:

Know the system. Make sure you know the evaluation process and what’s being evaluated and focus on those areas, said Alexander Lowry, a professor of finance and executive director of the Master of Science in Financial Analysis program at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass. “Knowledge at the beginning is key,” he said. Not understanding the subtleties and nuances of the process “doesn’t set you up for success.”

These days, most reviews have gone beyond simple feedback and have become richer in content, Moehrle said. They usually ask students to supply a summary evaluation of a faculty member’s teaching, but now ask for other inputs to provide evidence of specific strengths and weaknesses. “In particular, they ask about skills and attitudes that are highly correlated with instructional acumen,” he said.

You can look at the evaluations before the semester begins and make sure your teaching speaks to specific questions. If the evaluation asks students whether the key information needed for the class was on the syllabus, for example, invest time in making sure your syllabus is as clear as possible, Moehrle said.

Vary your teaching tactics. Rather than relying on one form of instruction, such as lecturing, vary your methods to make your classes more interesting and pleasant. Engaged students will be happier, which will be reflected on evaluations, said David Crawford, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D., professor of accounting at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, S.D.

“I like to have a few classroom activities where the students are involved,” he said. “They appreciate including the activities as graded items and it also serves as an incentive to attend class while affording students the opportunity to interact with their peers.”

For instance, he will hand out an exercise or problem involving content that has been discussed in class and give students time to work on it with neighbors while being able to ask him questions. Later, the class will discuss the solution in order to reinforce the concept.

Consider opportunities for extra credit. Allow students to earn a few bonus points via extra assignments or by attending industry-related events such as career fairs or guest lectures, suggested Crawford, who has taught for nearly 25 years.

Students appreciate having the opportunity to do something extra to boost their grades. “The small amount I give probably won’t alter a grade much, but it makes students feel better about the class,” he said.

Be respectful and personable. Professors should also get to know students as people and take an interest in their lives, serve as role models and mentors, and avoid using fear as a weapon, Moehrle said. “Cultivate a professional environment of mutual respect in the classroom,” he said.

Crawford said that students have commented positively on his accessibility on evaluations. “Demonstrating a willingness to speak with students will improve their perception of you,” he said. “Students view professors as authority figures and it helps them if we are approachable.”

Dewey Martin, CPA, CGMA, who recently retired after nearly four decades of teaching accounting at Husson University in Bangor, Maine, said he worked to learn the names of all of his students within the first two weeks of class. He would then address them by name if he saw them on campus or around town. “It says you care about them,” he said. He also urges a quick response to all phone and email messages. “A common complaint from students is that they cannot get in touch with their professor,” he pointed out.

Learn from the feedback. Don’t be afraid to discuss the evaluation process with students, Lowry said. Tell them that you’re looking for honest and constructive feedback and describe where you think you’ve been successful and unsuccessful, he said.

Take the time to review your feedback and think about how you can improve in the future. While you shouldn’t let any negativity ding your confidence, you should look for common themes in your evaluations. You may discover that a case study no longer feels fresh or that a once-popular guest has fallen out of favor. Be aware that students who didn’t do well in the class may be more negative and that some students and professors simply don’t click. “Do not become discouraged by a few negative teaching evaluations,” Broady suggested. “Instead, focus on trends and patterns to determine desired areas for improvement.”

View the process as a chance to fine-tune the next semester. “I want their feedback,” Lowry said. “I want to do better every time.”

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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